Using Effective Listening To Improve Leadership in Environmental Health and Safety

Every day, environmental health and safety professionals make a myriad of decisions using their technical skills, which have far-reaching effects for both organizations and the public at large. But, while those technical skills are crucial, making the right decisions goes beyond this knowledge. Determining the best way to meet the needs of colleagues and employers, as well as enlisting them to help meet goals, takes effective listening.

What is Effective Listening?
Effective listening, a more active form of listening, is a process that goes beyond simply hearing. While you hear with your ears, you listen with your entire body, including your ears, eyes, heart, and brain.

“The overarching principle of effective listening is to seek first to understand, then to be understood,” said Rick Fulwiler, president of Transformational Leadership Associates, a program director at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the former director of health and safety worldwide at Procter and Gamble. “It requires much more energy than just passive listening, but you will not be as successful without effective listening skills.”

Effective listening, according to Fulwiler, is about words, dance, and music—the other person’s words, tonality, and body language. This is what listening with your entire body is about. It means going beyond someone’s words by paying attention to body language how the words are spoken and putting this into the context of what you know about this individual.

How To Listen Effectively
Effective listening is not something that comes naturally to many people. Being able to listen effectively—and then use these skills for influential leadership—is a skill that must be learned and practiced. This is particularly true in fields such as environmental health and safety, where technical skills are often emphasized over soft skills, such as communication.

However, there are many barriers to effective listening, particularly in our modern world. According to Fulwiler, some of the most common are

  • Prejudging the person you need to listen to—People often judge others on qualities such as their appearance, background, or language barriers. However, these judgments can get in the way of truly listening to the message the person is trying to deliver.
  • Formulating a response or rebuttal before someone is finished with their message—If you are thinking about how you will respond to someone before they’ve completed their thought, you’re not listening to their complete message. Fulwiler notes that refraining from doing this requires a lot of discipline because “most of us are active problem solvers.”
  • Listening just for facts—Communication is primarily conveyed by words, tone, and body language, but research has shown only 7% of a message is expressed by words. This makes it even more crucial to embrace effective listening. If you do not pay attention to the emotions behind the facts, as well as expression through body language, you might miss what is driving the message.
  • Misunderstanding cultural cues—As our lives become increasingly global, it may be hard to understand the culture of the person you are talking to, or at least understand how it may be different. Without this awareness, it can be difficult to determine the nuances and motivations of what someone is saying.
  • Multitasking—With advances in technology, there are more opportunities to multitask than ever. However, if you are looking at your phone while someone else is talking, you cannot listen effectively.

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HSE Now is a source for news and technical information affecting the health, safety, security, environment, and social responsibility discipline of the upstream oil and gas industry.